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‘Mayday’ Panel: Blacks in state of emergency but unaware

Wilmer Leon, Nicole Austin-Hillery, Ben Chavis, Shanta Driver  COURTESY PHOTO

Wilmer Leon, Nicole Austin-Hillery, Ben Chavis, Shanta Driver COURTESY PHOTO

By Kelly-Ann Brown
Trice Edney Newswire

Black leaders assembled to discuss what has been declared a state of emergency in the African American community, concluded much of the Black community is unaware of the dire state of affairs around them.

“We are in a state of emergency, but the Black community senses no emergency,” said Baltimore pastor Dr. Jamal-Harrison Bryant. “Our danger is we have a generation who doesn’t know how to cry mayday, because they don’t even know they’re drowning… How can I see that I’m drowning when I don’t even have a job, but I wear $150 Jordans?” he said to applause.

High school students, civic leaders and other professionals and community members gathered for the standing-room-only forum at the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C., May 1.

The Historic Capital Press Club (CPC), led by journalist Hazel Trice Edney, president, sponsored the forum, themed “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday in America! — A Nation Divided Against Itself…”.

Though the forum was conceived and announced weeks before the recent Supreme Court ruling upholding a ban on affirmative action and the racial controversies facing the National Basketball Association after derogatory and racially insensitive remarks were made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, those issues were heavily on the minds of the panelists, which also included political scientist Dr. Wilmer Leon, Brennan Center Director-Counsel Nicole Austin Hillery, civil rights icon Dr. Benjamin Chavis, and Shanta Driver, national chair of By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), who argued the recent Schuette v. BAMN affirmative action case before the Supreme Court.

“What’s wrong with the NAACP?” questioned Chavis, formerly of the historic Wilmington 10 and a former executive director of the NAACP. Referring to Donald Sterling almost receiving his second Lifetime Achievement Award from the Los Angeles NAACP, despite past allegations of racism against him, he said, “That man won the Lifetime Achievement Award twice because he has Lifetime Achievement Award money.”

Moderated by economist Julianne Malveaux, the panelists did not hold their tongues or quell their passion when offering insight into the paramount mayday issues of today.

“Part of the Mayday in me is how compromised we are. How unwilling we are to protest, to take it to the streets,” Malveaux says. She added the most urgent issues to her are those associated with economic participation.

Chavis agreed that Blacks are not active enough in their own destiny and tend to compromise.

“The Mayday issue is us,” says Dr. Chavis, encouraging the audience to read a book by South Africa activist Steve Biko on Black consciousness in South Africa.

“The election of President Obama was a great milestone, but it wasn’t the end of the journey at all. And in the book he said, ‘the greatest weapon in the hand of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.’ Our reactions as a people to Sterling is because the mainstream media focused on it. The mainstream media is not focused on those 200 girls in Nigeria. So we don’t have that emotional response about it,” he said. “So I think we have to find a way to raise the consciousness of our people. And I think we should be unapologetic about having a Black consciousness.”

Dr. Wilmer Leon, political scientist and host of the Sirius XM radio show, “Inside the Issues with Wilmer Leon,” focused on unemployment along with a wealth gap between African Americans and whites and the disproportional impact of the home foreclosure crisis.

As a result of disproportionate economic impacts, the average white family has approximately $632,000 in wealth, while the average Black family has only $98,000. This disparity puts Africans Americans at a disadvantages for continued wealth in future generations as there is less money to allocate.

“If you cannot transfer wealth, it’s harder to create it,” said Leon.

The panelists shared their views on the declining state of Black America, offering possible solutions and urging the youth to stand up and take action.

“Here’s the news flash,” said Leon. “The cavalry is not coming. We are going to have to circle the wagons and save ourselves. We really must talk about what we can do to save ourselves.”

Nicole Austin-Hillery, director-counsel for Brennan Center for Justice, considers the impacts of mass incarceration and threats to voting rights as a pressing concern.

Recalling a conversation with a young African American man referring to his experience in jail, Austin-Hillery quotes him as saying, “‘I thought it was part of my existence that at some point I would end up in the criminal justice system.’ Mayday! We need to be alarmed when young Black men are growing up and saying, ‘I think that a part of my existence in this country is to grow up and be a part of the criminal justice system.’

“So this issue of mass incarceration requires our immediate attention for it’s not just about Black and brown men being locked up… Not only are we sending these Black and brown men to prison, but there’s a trickle-down effect that results from their mass incarceration. What does it mean when these young men are not in the home? What does it mean when these young men are not available to be productive members of their community, are not our future brain surgeons, our future lawyers, our future accounts, our future business leaders?”

According to the NAACP, the U.S. is five percent of the world’s population, but accounts for 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Consequently, African Americans are likely to be incarcerated six times as much as white Americans — making up nearly 1 million of the 2.2 million of U.S. prisoners.

In regard to voting rights, Austin-Hillery posed the question, “Why do you think they try to keep us from the voting booth? Because there is power in the polls… You cannot allow people to lock you up and shut you up,” he answered.

Driver said the greatest issue the community faces is the “prospect of building civil rights and immigrant rights movements.”

She said the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Michigan’s ban on affirmative action for college enrollment is not only a step backwards but an opening to a whole new movement.

“This is the new Jim Crow. This is separate and unequal again. This the disenfranchisement of our people. And we’ve got to pull together and stand together and fight,” she said. “Affirmative action programs were a product of our struggle and made an enormous difference in our society. We went from less than one and two percent Black lawyers in the 1960s to seven percent of those by 1980. Now our numbers are starting to fall again, because the attack on affirmative action is leading to the resegregation of higher education.”

Despite the many issues concerning the Black Community, panelists were confident hope is not lost.

As dozens of high school students from the Maya Angelo Public Charter School looked on, Leon said, “Young people think the (Montgomery Bus Boycott) just happened. It didn’t. It took strategy, they (Civil Rights Leaders) studied (and planned).”

Another possible solution offered was picking an issue that is inspiring and not limiting oneself to “traditional” civil rights issues. Concludes Austin-Hillery, “If your civil rights are being violated, that’s a civil rights issue.”

The forum was part of a series of public gatherings in celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Capital Press Club, formed in 1944 when the National Press Club refused to accept Blacks. In closing remarks, Edney said she has a feeling “help is on the way.”


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